TBI Interviews: Dana Velasco Murillo

Marking the week of Columbus Day, TBI interviewed Freedom of Expression Blog guest editor and accomplished historian Dana Velasco Murillo about her research on native people in colonial Mexico and about how different historical approaches can fundamentally shape and reshape our understanding of the present. 

As a historian, how does your approach represent an alternative to the “great individual” narratives that dominate our understanding of the conquest?

 Both colonial writers and early armchair historians established a conquest narrative that highlighted key protagonists (Columbus, Hernán Cortés, the Pizarro brothers), two central episodes (the siege of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, and the fall of the Inca Empire in the Andes), and designated victors (Iberians) and vanquished (indigenous peoples). The “New Conquest History,” is a historical approach that reconsiders the encounter of indigenous peoples and Iberians in the Americas from distinct perspectives and trajectories. Important goals of this approach include placing native peoples at the center of the narrative, rethinking the concept of conquest as a one-time military episode, and illustrating how indigenous peoples and institutions survived under Spanish rule. By shifting the narrative away from a single person, historians are able to introduce multiple perspectives that provide a more nuanced picture of the past.  The New Conquest History considers diverse perspectives on the conquest, including those of indigenous peoples who allied with Iberian leaders as well as women. Some indigenous allies considered themselves conquerors in their own right.

Can you tell us a bit about how that approach evolved? How does the use of different sources help tell a different story?

During the 1970s historians began to recover the history of non-elite groups, or “history from below.” Professional scholars began to examine mundane sources, such as town council minutes, letters, images, and wills, to name a few, in order to capture the lives of ordinary individuals. For Spanish America, these sources revealed the continued presence of large and vibrant indigenous populations. As interest in recovering the experiences of native peoples continued, scholars began to search for and recover native language documents. These sources revealed in greater detail and variety how native practices survived and adapted under Spanish rule. My recent book, Urban Indians in a Silver City (Stanford 2016), used Spanish language documents produced by or about native peoples to illustrate how native peoples played a key role in the development of the city of Zacatecas, Mexico, embracing urban practices while they still maintained their indigenous identities. Using different types of sources, such as indigenous language and mundane documents, captures the lives, experiences, and attitudes of people and groups that do not appear in the types of records that traditionally only emphasize elites.

 What makes these sources unique? What is it like to work with them?

I use manuscript documents that were produced during the Spanish American period (1492-1825). Since these documents are hundreds of years old, they are very fragile and can only be examined in archives or libraries, in my case, usually in Spain and Mexico. However, efforts to digitize documents are making these sources available to more people online. The manuscripts I analyze are handwritten in archaic (older style) Spanish. You have to transcribe the handwriting and translate the document. It is very precise and difficult work, but really exciting too!

Amerindian groups are often either invisible, erased by a supposed assimilation and acculturation; assumed absent, the victims of violence and disease; or outsiders, presumed to be excluded or in conflict with European settlers. What does your research with these sources tell us about those three perspectives?

The Iberian invasion of the Americas brought about catastrophic changes to the native population. Some scholars estimate that as much as 90 percent of the pre-conquest population died from war, labor exploitation, and disease. Yet long lines of prestigious scholars have illustrated the continued resilience of the native population under Spanish rule through adaptation and innovation. My research focused on native peoples in cities. Urban centers have often been considered sites of rapid cultural loss. My work, however, illustrates how urban native peoples that settled in Zacatecas were eager to be active municipal residents of their new homes even as they created indigenous institutions and organizations that resembled those that they had left behind. They were bicultural, a trait that can be applied to immigrants worldwide today.

Why do origin stories such as the traditional narrative of Columbus matter, and why is it important to correct them?

The persistence of romanticized narratives like those surrounding Columbus Day give preeminence to Spanish versions of the conquest and colonial rule, promoting the memories, motivations, and ambitions of Iberian participants.  In advancing the perspectives of one group, many of these origin stories perpetuate derogatory stereotypes from the period that continue to be applied to their contemporary descendants. Spanish political administrators and religious leaders, for example, depicted native peoples as child-like, intellectually inferior, uncivilized, lazy, and prone to vices.  Unfortunately, these attributes are still applied to many native peoples in Latin America and the United States today. Deconstructing these narratives then reveals not only the iniquities of the past but may remedy some of the injustices experiences by native peoples today.

 What does a different, new narrative about the conquest mean for our understanding of ourselves and our society today?

 As new narratives about momentous episodes emerge, such as the conquest of the Americas, they allow us to assess the present through the lens of historical events rather than making value judgments based on incomplete or distorted stories. Understanding how colonialism discouraged the development of local industries in the Americas, for example, helps us understand why some Latin American countries continue to struggle with developing and diversifying their domestic economies. Rethinking the conquest, or any historical episode or person, encourages us to think critically about important events and issues, whether they are in the past or the present. In other words, engaging in multiple perspectives discourages us from considering people or issues in such stark terms as poor/prosperous, good/bad, and friend/enemy. We don’t even have a Pan-Indian narrative of the conquest because individual ethnic states experienced the invasion in different ways. We too often confuse critical thinking with simply being “critical.” Actually, it is a process by which the individual assesses a situation based on information gathering and tangible evidence, rather than through personal feelings, hearsay, or anecdotal (as in one time) evidence. The technological revolution we are living through now has brought great benefits to our daily lives, but it has also released an unprecedented amount of information, some of which has no basis in fact. One of the primary roles of professional historians is to facilitate our students’ critical thinking and analytical skills and complicating standard historical narratives is one way we do so.

Dana Velasco Murillo is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego. She researches the intersections of colonialism with ethnicity, gender, identity formation, and urbanism in early Latin America. Her book, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810, examines how ethnically diverse indigenous migrants re-created native communities and indigenous identities.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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